Attacks on the Press 2005: Asia Analysis

As Radio Grows Powerful, Challenges Emerge
By Abi Wright
At home, in the car, and even in the fields, more people across Asia are getting their news on the radio than ever before. Increasingly, this accessible and affordable medium is bringing real-time information to remote areas of Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, Afghanistan, and Thailand, parts of which were previously days or even weeks behind the news cycle. In Afghanistan, 83 percent of the population say they tune in to radio news, the Afghan consulting firm Altai found in 2005. In the Philippines, the audience is even larger, with 87 percent reporting that they listen to news on the radio, according to a poll by the national broadcast regulator KBP.

The region-wide flowering of community radio stations and a shift from shortwave relay to local FM transmission of international news broadcasts has made the medium more accessible than ever. Funding from Western governments and international media training organizations such as Internews has enabled new stations to start and existing stations to increase their range in countries from Afghanistan to Indonesia.

International broadcasters such as the BBC and the U.S. government-funded Voice of America remain popular in many countries, but they must now compete with local stations and no longer dominate the dissemination of news and information.

Radio has also become an instrument of reform in countries plagued by corruption. One Afghan listener told a BBC survey in 2004, “We want to be kept aware of the government’s activities, and some corrupt people in the government should be exposed.” In the Philippines, provincial listeners believe that outspoken commentators give voice to their concerns. “The level of trust in the government is low, police don’t work, and people are poor,” said Weng Carranza-Paraan, a member of the journalists’ union. “Radio makes people feel empowered.”

This scrutiny of both local and national governments, however, has not always been welcome. In Nepal and Thailand, leaders retaliated in 2005 with crackdowns on radio stations, while radio journalists in Afghanistan and the Philippines frequently faced threats and violence from officials because of their reporting.

A look at the state of radio news across the region reveals both the power of news and the growing number of obstacles local radio journalists face.

Philippines: The Philippine press is one of the freest and least regulated in Asia. It also operates in one of the world’s most murderous countries for journalists, particularly radio commentators, according to CPJ research. Over the last five years, 22 journalists have been murdered in retaliation for their work. At least 17 were broadcasters on radio stations in rural areas.

A CPJ mission in June found that violence against broadcasters fits into a larger pattern of crime, corruption, and impunity. Government officials have been implicated in as many as half of the killings, according to the local Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

The high death toll for radio journalists also reveals a crisis in the media. Many journalists complained to CPJ about an absence of professional standards and ethics among some broadcast journalists, particularly “block-timers” who lease airtime from station owners. “Commentators are vulnerable because they are free to criticize anybody–and the people who are criticized don’t have access to the KBP [broadcast regulator],” said Nandy Vitalicio, news director of the Manila Broadcasting Company, the largest radio network in the Philippines. Vitalicio said journalists must work to reform themselves in order to stop the killings.

Nepal: Governments pose another threat to the news radio boom. On February 1, Nepal’s King Gyanendra declared a state of emergency, sacked his government, and shut down the free press, including what had been the pride of Nepal’s media, its independent news radio operations. Some 46 independent FM stations across Nepal, 14 in Kathmandu alone, were ordered in the name of fighting the country’s Maoist insurgency to replace all news programs with music and entertainment.

FM radio stations broadcast to an estimated 70 percent of the population, according to the BBC. A 2003 Supreme Court decision allowed the broadcast of news bulletins on private radio, a groundbreaking step for the region. Even India, the world’s largest democracy and Nepal’s influential neighbor, permits radio news broadcasting only on the state-run All India Radio network.

That era ended on February 1, when soldiers descended on studios at stations such as Radio Sagarmatha. With an estimated 1.5 million listeners, Radio Sagarmatha is one of the largest stations in the Kathmandu Valley. The troops ordered station staff at gunpoint to stop broadcasting news. “I think we had been marked, and they felt threatened by us. The current thinking is that FM radio stations are dangerous because they’re capable of inciting people to revolt,” station chief Ghama Raj Luitel told Inter Press Service in April.

The king sought to justify the media crackdown by saying that Maoist rebels, who have been fighting to depose the government since 1996, were using the press to advance their cause. In fact, the Nepali Times reported in August that the Maoists took advantage of the radio news blackout to broadcast news and propaganda on Radio People’s Republic, using a dozen reporters with mobile radio units. Further attempts to muzzle the media followed. Journalists fought back with court challenges and street protests until October, when permanent amendments to the press law were announced, codifying onerous prohibitions on the media that include a permanent ban on broadcasting news on the radio. Journalists who broadcast criticism of the king now face up to two years in prison.

Afghanistan: The number of news media outlets available to Afghans has grown dramatically since the collapse of the Taliban regime in December 2001. During their five-year rule, the Taliban outlawed the independent press, music programming, and female news readers on the airwaves. Radio broadcasts were confined to religious programs and government announcements on the officially sanctioned Voice of Sharia.

Today, news vendors sell hundreds of different newspapers and magazines in major cities, and more than 50 FM radio stations beam news and information throughout the mountainous country. Small radio stations airing local news programming are particularly popular, according to Internews, a media training organization that has helped set up a network of dozens of stations.

International aid has helped bolster independent women’s community stations, whose listeners are largely illiterate. Their operations are low-tech. One station staffed by young women in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Radio Rabia Balkhi, broadcasts from a one-room studio lit by a lantern and powered by a car battery, The Washington Post reported. The broadcasters say they are able to help inform many Afghan women about issues relating to their lives and the world. Isolated by tradition, many women do not have access to any other sources of news.

Radio journalists played a key role in educating listeners about candidates and issues during the landmark presidential elections in 2004 and the parliamentary elections in 2005. As their audience grows, so does the number of threats radio journalists say they face from warlords, corrupt officials, and insurgents. A survey for the Afghan media training group Nai reported that 54 percent of Afghan radio journalists say they were “intimidated” while covering the presidential elections. The prevalence of threats and harassment from warlords and conservative figures causes self-censorship, local journalists told CPJ.

International broadcasters still play an important role on the airwaves in Afghanistan. A December 2004 survey by Radio Free Asia/Radio Liberty’s Afghan service, called Radio Free Afghanistan or Radio Azadi, found that nearly two-thirds of the country’s listeners tuned in to their programming weekly. RFE/RL, the BBC, and Voice of America all compete with the growing output of local stations on the FM dial.

Even the Taliban, who continue to fight coalition forces in the south, are back in the radio game. Spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi announced the relaunch of the Taliban’s Voice of Sharia radio station in April. It now broadcasts antigovernment commentaries and religious hymns twice a day from a mobile transmitter.

Indonesia: Radio stations devastated in the December 2004 tsunami have been resurrected in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. With support from international donors and domestic broadcasters like the Jakarta-based radio network 68-H, which provided temporary transmitters and equipment to seven of its Aceh-based member stations, they are now playing a part in the region’s recovery. The founder of 68-H, Santosa (who, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name), told CPJ that he hopes to set up another 20 stations across the battered region by the end of 2006. “We see an opportunity from the tsunami to open access to information in more remote areas,” he said.

Internews received funding from the Knight Foundation to help train radio and television journalists in Aceh, helping to ensure the future of broadcasting.

Another local station, Radio Prima, lost 22 of its reporters in the tsunami. It was broadcasting again one month later from its owner’s back yard. According to news director Uzair, government restrictions previously in place in this war-ravaged province have been eased since the disaster. He told CPJ that the station now airs news programs and call-in shows on more controversial subjects, such as the debate over whether the influx of Western aid workers is increasing the risk of HIV/AIDS in the region. “We are testing new waters,” Uzair said.

Thailand: In the five years since community radio became legal in Thailand, an estimated 2,000 low-frequency FM stations have surfaced throughout the country. Reaching growing audiences, some of these independent broadcasters have even dared criticize Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government, which dominates much of the country’s media.

Thaksin tried to fight back through a new National Broadcast Commission. The nominally independent body was charged with redistributing the country’s radio and television frequencies from the state to the private sector as required by the 1997 constitution. But media reformers immediately argued that the new body represented the same vested interests–including the military–that already control the country’s electronic media. The reformers won a victory in November when a court voided the commission’s formation.

At the same time, the government brought criminal charges against a former rice farmer, Satien Chanthorn, who had established the community station FM 106.75 MHz in Ang Thong province in July 2002. Satien’s coverage of the local government’s handling of flood relief budgets brought him into direct conflict with authorities. Police confiscated his broadcasting equipment and charged him with illegally possessing a radio transmitter and operating a radio station without a license. Many community stations operate without licenses, and press freedom advocates say that Satien was targeted because of his critical broadcasts.

In August, police also raided and shut down FM 92.25, a Bangkok community radio station known for its critical reporting of the prime minister, and threatened to arrest its journalists if they continued to broadcast news.

Regional challenges: Despite new dangers confronting radio broadcasters–from hostile governments, criminal groups, and militant elements–radio news is giving listeners in Asia a voice in their communities and on a national level. Support from international organizations has helped resurrect and expand media structures in the wake of wars and natural disasters throughout Asia.

Competition between stations is growing along with the number of radio outlets, producing higher-quality programming in some countries and pressure for higher ratings in others. Journalists in Afghanistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines have told CPJ about their desire for more training in ethics and journalistic standards and practices.

As the number of stations grows across the region, enemies of the media will have a harder time controlling what is broadcast. Keeping these stations on the air and maintaining the free flow of information will be critical to Asia’s emerging democracies.

Abi Wright is Asia Program Coordinator.